Passion lies in the lighthearted moments of 'Romeo and Juliet' at the Guthrie

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Photo by Jenny Graham

Seven years isn't long to wait between productions of a single play, but you can't blame the Guthrie for wanting to take a mulligan on their 2010 Romeo and Juliet, an Acting Company co-production that depicted the star-crossed couple as simpering martyrs.

Romeo and Juliet

Guthrie Theater
$29-$77; $15-$59 previews

Of course, that was before the Joseph Haj era, and the Guthrie's current artistic director personally takes the helm for this new production that has a decidedly different approach. This Romeo (Ryan-James Hatanaka) is a winning goof, and Juliet (Kate Eastman) is so breezy that when she awakes to make her fateful discovery, she seems more annoyed than devastated. Don't you just hate it when people crash your tomb and hog all the drinks?

The lighthearted tone plays well in the early acts, when instead of a doomy feud and moony lovers we get a vivacious Verona with a Montague-Capulet rivalry that doesn't seem likely to escalate beyond the occasional thumb-biting. The Guthrie has West Side Story coming up in the new year, and this production seems calculated to ease translations between that musical and its 16th-century inspiration.

Not that there's anything remotely jazzy about the Shakespearean sparring that takes place on the Wurtele Thrust. With Victor Zupanc music that's akin to the EDM- and rock-inspired scores heard in current action films, the battling factions sally forth costumed by Jennifer Moeller in what looks like goth workout wear, revealing enough skin to showcase their gnarly tattoos.

Mercutio is cast as a woman: Kelsey Didion, in a sprightly turn that's refreshing even if it's in line with the production's general tendency toward the blithe. (When she curses, "A plague o' both your houses," she seems to want to follow it with, "...assholes!") Didion has a fine foil in the appealingly understated Lamar Jefferson as Benvolio, although you might wish he wasn't quite so supportive as to actually drop a beat when Mercutio wants to rap about rabbits.

This reimagined Romeo would be worth seeing for the balcony scene alone, which could be a textbook illustration of how to dust off your Shakespeare. Haj and Eastman allow that Juliet might be other than a purely passive victim of fate: flushed with her lusty crush, this Juliet comes down from her perch to romance Romeo, scrambling back up with a fluidity that suggests this might not be the first time she's had reason to let down her hair.

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Photo by Jenny Graham

It starts to become clear that this fun production is going to struggle to make the turn from comedy to tragedy, and sure enough, it never quite tugs the tears as well as it tickles the fancy. That's despite a powerful performance by Stan Demidoff, whose Tybalt convincingly conveys a dark thirst that no dance-off will slake.

There are plenty of new twists here, including the literal twists of Anna Louizos's spinning set as well as the surprising but effective decision to intercut between Juliet's post-rumble debrief with her Nurse (a rambunctious Candace Barrett Birk) and Romeo's conference with the Friar (James A. Williams, his eyeballs, happily, intact again after King Lear). That speeds the scenes and heightens the tension, demonstrating that in theater, as well as in love, risks can have their rewards.
IF YOU GO:

Romeo and Juliet
Guthrie Theater
Through October 28


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